From the colourful, onion domes of Red Square in Moscow, the treasures of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to the frozen landscape of Siberia, Russia exerts a strong pull on the imagination.
This vast, vast country bridges two continents (Europe and Asia) and has 11 time zones stretching from Kaliningrad in the West to Ratmanov Island in the Bering Strait in the east.
Moscow is its jewel and capital city, but there are more reasons to visit Russia than to see the Kremlin, Red Square, or experience its hedonistic clubs - even if cheap flights to Russia have become more plentiful in recent years. St Petersburg was capital of the Russian Empire for more than 200 years until the revolution in 1917. Its cityscape is magnificent, its public buildings awe-inspiring, and its treasures straight out of a fairytale.
Away from the man-made wonders, there are more than 30 national parks, skiing and snowboarding at Mount Cheget and Mount Elbrus and the Lapland Biosphere Reserve in Murmansk, which is home to reindeer, elks, brown bears and wolves.
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The largest country in the world, Russia has several different climates. About 65 per cent of it is under permafrost, but in the most populated areas such as Moscow and St Petersburg there is a continental climate - hot summers and very cold winters with lots and lots of snow. Along the Black Sea coast, in Sochi, a humid subtropical climate holds sway - mild winters and hot summers. Northern European Russia and Siberia has a subarctic climate and along the Arctic Ocean shore (and islands) the climate is polar.
When to fly to Russia
Moscow and St Petersburg are two of the most popular tourist destinations and they are “visitable” for much of the year. The early summer (May and June) has the festivals, exhibitions, carnivals and concerts; autumn (September) is a great time to visit for the foliage; and late winter (January and February) is when these cities are covered by thick falls of snow. Moscow’s temperatures can range between -30 to 30 degrees; St Petersburg’s average winter temperature is about -10 degrees and summer highs are about 25 degrees.
St Petersburg (and other northern cities such as Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo and Aberdeen) enjoys White Nights when the sun does not set until after 10pm – twilight melts into dawn – between late-May and early-July.
Winters are bitterly cold. If you look for cheap flights to Russia in the off-peak season, be sure to bring plenty of warm clothes.
Getting around Russia
Aeroflot Russian Airlines, the national airline, has a comprehensive domestic flight network. It flies from Moscow to several cities including St Petersburg, Kazan, Samara and Vladivostok
S7 Airlines is based in Novosibirsk and flies to several destinations including Irkutsk, Kazan, Moscow, Nizhni Novgorod and Omsk.
Transaero offers flights around much of the country including to St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Kiev, Odessa, Chimkent, Tashkent and Kamchatsky.
Rail: the Trans Siberian railway is the longest railway in the world. It starts in Moscow and chugs through Nizhni Novgorod, Kirov, Ekaterinburg, Omsk and over to Vladivostok.
Russian Railways operates a good range of passenger services throughout Russia, from Archangelsk to Zabaykal’sk. Journeys are inexpensive, if slow, but there are usually three classes of service on long journeys. Travel third class (Platskartny) for a more “Russian” experience. Moscow and St Petersburg have metro systems; good service and really beautiful stations.
Bus travel is also cheap and links cities and towns around Russia, but is not very comfortable. The main bus station in Moscow is called Schyolkovsky Bus Terminal.
Russia insider information
- Russia has more than 100 ski areas. Among the best are Mount Elbrus, has the highest peak and year-round skiing; Cheget in the Caucasus Mountains in the Baksan Valley; and the Volen Sport Park is about 60km from Moscow and has six slopes.
- Sochi, on the Black Sea, was Stalin’s and, more recently, Vladimir Putin's preferred resort. Due to the warmest climate in Russia, you can swim in the sea in the summer and ski in the mountains (like Putin) in the winter. The town is undergoing a makeover to help with its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The town also has the largest botanical gardens in Russia.
- Veliky Novgorod, is the oldest Slavic city recorded in Russia, first mentioned in chronicles in 859. It is a beautiful, historic city boasting the cathedral of St Sophia the Wisdom of God, Russia’s oldest church, which dates from the 11th century. Detinets (the fortress) is the historic centre. The architectural monuments of the town are listed on the Unesco World Cultural Heritage List.
- Kamchatka, on the extreme northeast of the country, is a land of volcanoes and geysers. There are active and extinct volcanoes, mineral springs and hot springs.
- Kostroma, in central Russia, is one of the country’s oldest cities and was close to the hearts of the Romanov tsars. Several of them, including the last tsar, Nicholas II, visited the Ipatievsky Monastery there. The Resurrection Church-on-the-Debre is a stunning, fairytale building, a beautiful five-domed affair.
- Volvograd was once called Stalingrad, scene of the infamous World War II battle between Russian and German soldiers. An enormous statue – 82 metres tall – called Motherland Calls! stands on Mamayev Kurgan as a memorial to the fallen. Mamayev Kurgan is a hill overlooking the city that saw some of the fiercest fighting between the forces.
- One of the world's great train journeys is the Trans-Siberian, the world's longest railway. Built between 1891 and 1916 to connect Moscow with Vladivostok, it chugs through Perm, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Chita and Khabarovsk.
- Are you planning to visit a city in Russia? Trivago is a useful website to search for accommodation, as it compares reviews and prices for hotels in Saint Petersburg and hotels in Moscow.